This doorstopper of a
volume, 680 pages, is not meant to be read in one sitting. It is
rather in the nature of an encyclopedia, a listing of women
freethinkers. It is something to browse in, to gradually absorb the
ideas of these women, who have helped shape our world. Freethinkers
in this context are not necessarily atheists, though many of the
women in this volume would qualify. Rather freethought means to
think independently and with reason about church and religion,
instead of taking belief on faith, authority, or tradition.
Their main theme was freedom for the female
sex. These were the founders of the gender revolution, the
fore-mothers of female liberation and women’s studies. More than
anything they wanted to free themselves and others from the
oppression of a society, which regarded females as permanent
children. They wanted "No Masters," no guardianship by
fathers, brothers or husbands, but control of their own bodies,
control of their own property, control of their lives and destinies.
In short they wanted to be subject to no man, as no man wants to be
subject to another. In this they pursued the highest ideals of
American society and culture.
woman pursued the goal of freedom in the nineteenth century she
clearly opposed religion and the revealed word of god as recorded in
the Bible. Unlike the earlier pagan society, the Christian religion
laid it out clearly. Women were taught to be subject to their
husbands, keep their silence in church, and to defer in all things
to the constituted authority of a male. Many of the writers who
sought freedom from servitude to men in consequence had to oppose
the patriarchal bondage of received religion. Liberation meant other
issues as well. No freedom was possible without abolition, and
anti-slavery agitation is deeply embedded in the early women’s
suffrage movement. The knowledge, the means, and the right to birth
control was another key demand. Comstockery, the battle about
obscenity was considered profoundly anti-women. Prohibition of
alcohol became a women’s issue.
book covers fifty women writers, for each there is a brief
biographical sketch, and, one or more of her writings, also short.
There is an emphasis on the English speaking world. Twelve of the
biographees are British, and 35 American born. Two rebelled against
an orthodox Jewish tradition, Ernestine Rose and Emma Goldman, both
born in eastern Europe. The youngest is a Bengali Moslem, Taslima
Nasrin, struggling against Islamic fundamentalism. Most, 31 were
born in the last century, three in the 18th century, and 16 in this
century. Some are world famous, George Eliot and Margaret Sanger,
for instance. Others played major roles in American history,
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are two. Some were born
rich, others poor; some were self-educated, others had high formal
educations. The book has a picture of most of them; some are formal
portraits, others mere informal sketches, yet for a few no picture
could be found and none may exist. Some of these women were public
agitators, others were quiet poets. One seems to be known mostly for
a single four line poem:
So many Gods, so many creeds,
So many paths that wind and wind,
When just the art of being kind
Is all this sad world needs.
This is a book which
belongs on the reference shelf of every free thinker and atheist.
More, it would do us all good occasionally to browse and read what
these women had to say.
-- Wolf Roder